Mary-Jo Dukas is an Orthodox Christian who is serious about whether she is fulfilling the Lord’s commandments. She went through Matthew 25:35-36 like it was a checklist and saw that the one thing that was missing was that she hadn’t visited someone in prison.
“I really felt called to prison ministry, but I was afraid,” confesses Dukas, who lives in North Carolina. “But I called up the local women’s minimum-security prison and became a volunteer.” She took women out on passes. They’d go shopping, out to lunch, or even spend a few hours at her house. “I brought them some normalcy,” says Dukas. One of the women even became an Orthodox catechumen.
A few years later, a troubled young man came into her life. “James called the first time asking to talk to my daughter but settled for talking with me. We talked on the phone 2 or 3 times a week for a couple of years and, when he got arrested, he called me and asked me to come visit him.” James had been a child of foster care and didn’t have anyone to turn to when he unexpectedly received a long prison sentence. Dukas’s parish priest visited James in prison.
Knowing someone in prison a reality for many Americans because the U.S.’s prison rate is 2.3 million, the highest in the world.
She corresponded regularly with James who was eventually baptized as an Orthodox Christian in prison. From him, her correspondence grew to five prisoners. Then her parish (St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC) became more involved in prison ministry. “I was being selfish in not sharing the blessing,” says Dukas. “The things that people in prison said and what they prayed for me — I was receiving such a blessing that I felt like I needed to share it with the congregation.”
Then, in 2010, she went to Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry’s conference in Philadelphia. “It just inspired me more,” says Dukas, “when I saw the many resources that OCPM has with the icon cards and all the books and correspondence courses.”
“For a long time, I felt like I was in competition with OCPM,” says Dukas, “I was possessive of my little ministry, but I realized that I can’t do everything. My purpose was to build relationships not to catechize.” Now she recommends OCPM’s study courses to prisoners who are curious about the Orthodox faith.
OCPM is the national prison ministry of the Orthodox Church and an agency of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. Part of OCPM’s work is to help parishes have their own vital ministry to prisoners. OCPM has prison chaplains with many years of experience who train priests and laypeople to visit prisoners. OCPM also produces a large array of books, pamphlets, and study materials that communicate the history, doctrine, and tradition of the Orthodox faith.
Dukas involves her parish in prison ministry by inviting parishioners to sign birthday cards every month. Prisoners love birthday cards, she says. One prisoner prayed that someone would remember him on his birthday and then he received a card from the parish. A few parishioners have become long term pen pals with prisoners. “They size you up to see if you are real,” says Dukas of prisoners. “Are you writing to them or are you doing a form letter? They want to know that you are a real person and that you actually care about them.”
In 2019, Dukas’s parish hosted a seminar with OCPM prison chaplain Fr. Stephen Pawley and other staff. Her goal was to get several Orthodox parishes involved. Six parishes were represented. “My goal is to get more priests involved,” says Dukas. “Our priest can only go to one prison. But there are other prisons that can use priests and deacons.”
The urgent need for a wider network of priests was driven home when a long-time prisoner, Elijah, faced high-risk surgery for a serious heart condition. He had long wanted to be baptized in the Orthodox Church, but there was no priest visiting his facility. He asked if he could be baptized at Saint Nicholas when he was released in 2022, but that seemed so far away. He wrote to Dukas saying he felt an urgency to be baptized and didn’t want to wait. Then, unexpectedly, he died. “And there were seven Orthodox churches within an hour from him,” says Dukas.
Dukas’s parish is hoping to build a “half-way” living arrangement for newly-released prisoners so that they can have a place to begin their new lives in freedom. Other prisoners have been released and now attend Dukas’s parish. Parishioners are very welcoming, says Dukas. “They recognize the prisoner and say, ‘I’ve been signing your birthday card for years.’”
Dukas’s commitment to prison ministry continues to multiply. Today, she personally corresponds with 75 prisoners in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Her goal is to have a network of priests in every area where she is in touch with prisoners so that they can be visited by priests.
“I am blessed and humbled by the faith that I find in those who are in prison,” says Dukas. “People go into it thinking ‘I will help people.’ But I have received more help and more kindliness than I have given.”